By Marty Appel
When Tom Brokaw created the term “The Greatest Generation,” he may not have realized that in one Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra, he had a single figure who represented the whole experience, wrapped up in a chest protector, shin guards and catcher’s mask.
The temptation to say “neatly wrapped” is overcome by the memory of Ted Williams at the Yogi Berra Museum in 1999, talking about the first time he batted with Yogi behind the plate.
“I looked down and saw this little fellow with his shin guards up to here and his chest protector down to there, and I said, “what the hell is this!?
“And then I came to see what a diamond in the rough this was – someone who was going to go all the way to the Hall of Fame.”
The Greatest Generation experience was typified by immigrant parents, The Great Depression and the Second World War, followed by marriage, children and a house in suburbs. Add to that the Middle America experience of learning the National Pastime on dusty sandlots in the shadow of the St. Louis Cardinals “Gas House Gang” years, and you have pretty much painted a mosaic of 20th Century America.
(And when Lawdie Berra, as Yogi was then called, would occasionally sell a three-cent newspaper to Joe “Ducky” Medwick, his favorite player, it was as though he was touching his own future.)
Only one major leaguer (albeit a future one), had all of that and also fought for his country at the D-Day invasion of Normandy. That was Berra. That he would also go on to become an international celebrity, a star of television commercials covering seven decades, a best-selling author, a presence in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, and holder of more World Series rings and records than anyone, were also just bonus achievements tacked onto a Hall of Fame playing career. And, he had America’s best-known nickname.
He won three MVP awards and finished in the top ten in MVP voting for seven straight years. He was on the American League All-Star team for 15 straight years, while watching a slew of Yankee catching prospects – with names like Courtney, Berberet, Triandos, Lollar, Niarhos, Johnson, Neeman, Foiles, and Smith, unable to displace him and traded off to competitors. (note to editor: first names are Clint, Lou, Gus, Sherm, Gus, Darrell, Cal, Hank and Hal if you feel you must use them).
One who wasn’t dealt was Elston Howard, the Yankees first African-American player. And no one eased Ellie’s transition onto the team more than Yogi.
Yogi, who died on September 22, 2015 at 90, was born to immigrant parents from Malvagio, Italy in 1925. Calvin Coolidge was President, Babe Ruth owned baseball, and after passing through Ellis Island, Pietro and Paulina Berra settled into “The Hill” section of St. Louis, where Pietro worked as a laborer. The family – with children Tony, Mike, John, Larry and Josie, in that order – moved into a modest home on Elizabeth Avenue, where Lawdie befriended his across-the-street neighbor Joey Garagiola.
“We were friends for almost 90 years,” says Joe, who also became a Major League catcher, and then a Today Show host and Frick Award-winning sportscaster. “I can’t remember a time when we weren’t friends.”
That two neighbors should wind up in Cooperstown was, like many things Berra, against all odds.
The Roaring ‘20s into which he was born turned into The Great Depression, and Lawdie left school at age 14, after the eighth grade, to help put food on the Berra table. He worked on a soda delivery truck, and he worked in a coalyard,
And he played baseball.
With pieced together or borrowed equipment, playing ‘til dark on the St. Louis sandlots, the kids learned the game. Larry and Joey played any street games they could find, and formed Stags A.C. for themselves, and for a more organized league, they played American Legion ball. Lawdie even got another nickname, when a teammate thought he sat in front of the team bench in a yoga position, like an Indian fakir. He became Yogi.
The easy-to-remember nickname caught on with the nation after a couple of Major League seasons, (he was first called Larry when he arrived), and even his wife Carmen, who he met when she was a waitress at a St. Louis steakhouse, called him that. And in turn, he once signed an anniversary card to her, “Love, Yogi Berra.” He was used to signing both names. They would be married for 65 years and had three sons – including an NFL player (Tim), and a Major League infielder (Dale).
Branch Rickey offered Garagiola a $500 bonus to sign with the Cardinals, but he offered only $250 for Yogi, who turned it down. It was a matter of pride, which was on the list of traits that would come to define Yogi, along with determination, durability, principle, sportsmanship, and respect.
Yogi knew he was as good as Joe. An old Eastern League umpire named Leo Browne recommended him to the New York Yankees Farm Director, George Weiss, and Yogi got his $500. And so in 1943, he joined Norfolk of the Class B Piedmont League, batted a modest .253, and then joined the Navy.
As circumstances would have it, Yogi and his crewmates were on a 36-foot attack transport ship, the USS Bayfield, parked off Utah Beach on D-Day, assigned to shoot at anything that moved to protect American warships. And they did. Yogi said the sky looked like it was the Fourth of July.
When the war ended, Yogi was assigned to Newark of the International League, where he hit .314. He was called up to the Yankees and made his debut on September 22, 1946 at Yankee Stadium. (He died on the 69th anniversary of that game). He batted eighth and hit a two-run homer his second time at bat, which proved to be the winning runs in the Yankees 4-3 win over Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics.
In 1947 he was part of a world championship club under Bucky Harris, but did not have a good World Series. As a catcher, he was raw. By 1949, when Casey Stengel took command of the team, it was decided to bring back Bill Dickey, the greatest catcher in the team’s history, to tutor Yogi and improve his game.
This marked a return to the organization for Dickey, who had quit as manager in ’46 because he wasn’t promised a contract for ’47. Eventually, the Yankees retired uniform number 8 honoring both Dickey and Berra.
Stengel did more for Berra than was generally known. At the time he began, Yogi was treated as a figure of humor by most journalists covering the club. It came close to ridicule. They wrote of his love for comic books, (his roommate, Bobby Brown, was studying medical books), and made reference to his being uneducated, as though he could barely read. There were references to his looks being, well, odd. Some came right out and said ugly.
Almost at once, Casey began calling him “Mr. Berra” to the press, and essentially put him in charge of the eight other men on the field, often citing his contributions to victory. The reporting of Yogi began to change. Stengel showed respect for Yogi, and the writers followed. The ridicule ceased.
Meanwhile, boyhood buddy Garagiola was about to go on the lecture circuit and begin a broadcast career. And Joe’s best material was his collection of Yogi stories and expressions, which came to be called Yogi-isms. Some were made up by Joe, others were actually spoken by Yogi, but the wisdom behind the remarks took hold and “As Yogi Berra would say…..” became a regular part of American speeches. What politician, trailing in the polls on election morning, hasn’t said, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over” ?
In 1950, when he finished third in MVP voting (behind teammate Phil Rizzuto and Boston’s Billy Goodman), Yogi may have had his best year. Despite all that hard work behind the plate (he missed only three games all season), he batted .322 with 28 home runs and 124 RBIs, while striking out only 12 times in 656 plate appearances. Few hitters could see the ball like Yogi could. Notorious as a bad ball hitter, he seemed able to make contact with pitches at will, whether in our out of the strike zone. There was almost no way he could be pitched to. Today he would be a rare power hitter against whom defenses never over-shift.
He never struck out more than 38 times in a season, while setting catcher’s records for home runs in a season and in a career (both since broken). And all the while, the Yankees kept winning championships. He played in 14 World Series, won ten of them, and then managed both the Yankees and the Mets to the seventh game of World Series losses, nine years apart.
And although Casey was known for platooning his players, that did not extend to the catching position. In 1950, the Yankees played 22 doubleheaders and Yogi caught both ends in 19 of them, even after the pennant was clinched. That same pattern followed year after year, peaking at 20-of-21 in 1952.
Add to that five additional World Series as a coach, plus a drawful of rings as a Special Advisor to the Yankees late in his career, and you can understand why it was deemed necessary for friends to open the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center in his honor in 1998 just to house and display all the goods.
His retirement years were marked by growing appreciation of his strength of character, as he boycotted the Yankees for 14 years after his firing in 1985, just 14 games into the season. During that time, the manner in which he conducted his life led fans to see how much more there was to him than the stats on his Hall of Fame plaque.
“He would have been a role model for all of us even if he’d never set foot in a ballpark,” wrote MLB’s Lindsay Berra, who happens to be his granddaughter. “But it was baseball that brought this wonderful man into the public eye and gave us the privilege of sharing him with the world. Baseball made him a hero. An icon. A legend.”
So noble was the body of his life’s work, that a few weeks after his death, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
By the time George Steinbrenner went to the Yogi Museum in 1999 to offer apologies for the manner in which he was fired, Yogi’s popularity was ever rising. It was now seldom debated who the best catcher in Yankee history was – Dickey or Berra. While at the time of Yogi’s retirement it was generally believed to be Dickey, (who won a fan vote on this in 1969), now it was Yogi all the way. He was the “fifth” face to be carved into the Yankees’ mythical Mt. Rushmore, after Ruth/Gehrig/DiMaggio/Mantle. He was regularly quoted by Presidents and honored for his charitable work. As he grew old, he would easily tear up in the presence of a veteran’s group, or even in meeting Little League teams, who reminded him of his own long-ago youth.
After the reconciliation, the Yankees held a Yogi Berra Day. Don Larsen, who pitched the perfect game for the Yankees in the 1956 World Series (with Yogi catching), threw out the first pitch. Yogi, borrowing Joe Girardi’s catcher’s mitt, received it, and then handed the mitt back to Joe.
With Girardi catching, David Cone then threw a perfect game that very afternoon. Suddenly, the word “miracle” was added to Yogi descriptors. It was apt. It once again, defied explanation. It was just Yogi Berra’s magic touch.